The Most Powerful Texans

The power game in Texas: how it works and who calls the shots.

Most every workday, after lunching at his favorite corner table in the Ramada Club, George R. Brown walks from the lobby of Houston’s First City National Bank Building, across Main Street, and into the old Lamar Hotel, where he takes his afternoon nap. Even at the age of 78, his eyesight failing badly, he moves through the downtown crowd in slow, purposeful strides, his back erect. Short, slim, white-haired, and with striking, arched eyebrows, he might easily be mistaken for a man of only ordinary distinction—a retired congressman, perhaps, or the name partner in some regionally successful accounting firm.

In fact, George Brown was once widely recognized to be the most powerful man in Texas. Some ventured that at one time he was the most powerful man in the entire nation, and, by extension, the entire world. Even now, despite his age and declining vision, many people think he remains the most potent individual force in the politics and economy of this state and many others.

The hotel suite where Mr. Brown will nap is numbered 8F; it is a place that should be known as one of the “secret” capitals of Texas, a true historical site. There, George Brown and his late brother Herman Brown, co-founders of Brown & Root, used to meet with the likes of the great Jesse H. Jones, builder, publisher, financier, New Deal government lender, and the reigning “Mr. Houston” for over 50 years; Judge James A. Elkins, Sr., a remarkable banker-lawyer often referred to in those days as “the secret government of Texas”; Gus S. Wortham, founder of the largest insurance company in the South; and, later, Lyndon B. Johnson, longtime beneficiary of the Brown political largesse and President of the United States.

These men, who became known to themselves and to other prominent people as the “8F Crowd,” called the shots on most major business and political developments in Texas during the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and much of the Sixties. They would gather in 8F to relax—to drink and play poker—but also to talk politics, exchange ideas, make business decisions, and choose the candidates they would support for public office. (“Lyndon,” one or the other would reportedly command, “go fix me a scotch.”) Though each member of this all-male crowd was a strong-willed individual, they were, at the same time, a cohesive, like-minded group. Their blessing was the blessing of “The Establishment.” Their rule was a virtually unchallenged and—they would emphasize—very “civic-minded” gerontocracy.

Though hardly the hive of activity it once was, 8F still bears the vestiges of that era. On the walls and around the suite are dozens of plaques and personal mementos, including a large picture, taken in the living room, that features the Browns, Jesse Jones, and other members of the 8F Crowd. Otherwise, the place where George Brown naps is a rather typical old hotel suite: two-bedroom, three-bath, with a formal dining room, a living room, kitchen, and hall, permanently rented to and paid for by Brown & Root. “Actually, 8F is probably one of the least attractive of our private suites because it’s never been remodeled,” says Lamar Hotel manager Edward C. Davis. “But that’s the way Mr. Brown wants it. He says, ‘Don’t touch it. Just leave everything the way it is.’ ”

That sentiment bears more than a little irony, since of all his contemporaries, George Brown has recognized most clearly that the old 8F days, however memorable, have definitely passed. The government, economy, and population of Texas have grown too large and become too diverse to be controlled by a hotel-room clique, no matter how sagacious or civic-minded. This is not to say that everything now operates openly, just that private individuals and a mere handful of men cannot attain the kind of near-total economic and political dominance that was possible years ago. And no one knows this better than George R. Brown. “You know,” he said in a recent interview, “all that power they say I have is just a myth.” That, too, may be going a bit far, but the essential question remains: now that Texas has become a modern, urban state, the third-most populous in the nation, who does wield the greatest power and how do they wield it?

A popular method of answering this sort of question is to take a poll asking for the names of “The Ten Most Powerful People in Texas.” However, in an informal survey, more than 30 prominent Texans found themselves hard put to come up with any such definitive list. Significantly, though, several names did keep recurring. They were:

• George R. Brown

• Retired American General chairman Gus S. Wortham

• John Connally

• University of Texas Board of Regents chairman Allan Shivers

Houston Post publisher Oveta Hobby

• First International Bancshares chairman Robert Stewart

• Republic of Texas chairman James Aston

• Texas Instruments founder and former Dallas mayor Erik Jonsson

• Democratic Party chairman Robert Strauss

• Real estate developer Trammell Crow

• Oilman Ed Cox

• First City Bancorporation chairman James Elkins, Jr.

• Banker-developer Walter Mischer

• Former Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski

A number of younger men also received frequent mention as “up and coming” power holders. Among the most notable of this group were Texas Commerce Bancshares chairman Ben F. Love, Riviana Foods chairman William H. Lane, and Hunt Oil Company heir Ray Hunt.

Beyond this nucleus, the names mentioned encompassed a wide range of corporate executives, entrepreneurs, government officials, labor leaders, and even Baptist ministers and open-heart surgeons. Not too surprisingly, the majority of people nominated as “powerful” live in Houston; Dallas power was often described as “up for grabs” on a local level, while most Dallas potentates—with a few significant exceptions—were judged “not in the same league” as their Houston counterparts. Power brokers in other Texas cities were scarcely mentioned, although the name of San Antonio contractor H. B. Zachry did come up several times. At the same time, it was consistently pointed out that many of the state’s most influential citizens—Wortham, Hobby, and Jonsson, for example—are now over 70 years old, and that while they retain considerable

Tags: POLITICS

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